The Church at Antioch - A Church with a Privilege
A. Naismith, Falkirk
The persecution that followed Stephen's martyrdom began a new stage in the progress of the early Christian Church, leading to the expansion of evangelistic testimony to Asia Minor and Europe. Acts 13 commences the account of missionary activity that demonstrates plainly Scriptural principles and apostolic practice. Antioch was the centre from which the first commended missionaries went forth to proclaim the evangel in the regions beyond them. Furthermore, the Syrian capital was the first large city in which the disciples of Christ commenced a work among the Gentiles. At that time it was the third city of the Roman Empire, and in it a Roman prefect had his court. Through it, with its port Seleucia, eastern merchants continually passed with silks from China, ivory from India, spices from Arabia, and other valued commodities for sale in Western lands. It was the seat of a Jewish colony and the centre of debased heathen worship. Within the walls of that magnificent and opulent city the first local church with a predominance of Gentile believers met to worship the living and true God and to serve the Lord Christ. From among the worshippers of Zeus (Jupiter), whose temple on Mount Silpius overlooked the city, many turned to the Lord through the preaching of Christ's scattered followers. This was the first company to bear the name of Christians, applied originally, we think, to the disciples by their pagan neighbours as a term of reproach. This was the church from which God chose the first missionaries to go at His bidding to carry the gospel to the utmost bounds of the Empire and to turn the world upside down. It has been calculated that the Christian church was established in Antioch in the last years of the Emperor Tiberius or the early years of the reign of Caligula.
Human wisdom might have selected Jerusalem as the first missionary home-base, for both Barnabas and Saul had a prior connection with the church there. The Lord's choice of Antioch was assuredly in accordance with His divine plan, and the spiritual graces and gifts in evidence in the church there are indications of the qualities that should characterize all commending assemblies.
"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!" Stephen's martyrdom and the subsequent persecution of believers had the effect of spreading the gospel far and wide. The late W. E. Vine describes its advent in Antioch as follows:
"Here, in this busy centre in touch with the Greek-speaking and Syrian-speaking world, there arrived one day a band of fugitives, all of them earnest promulgators of the most glorious tidings ever given to men. They could not hire a building, arrange a campaign or advertize meetings. So they simply spoke to the people. In this most casual and unostentatious way the work began to grow and the growth was rapid." It was thus that those who heard and believed the gospel became Grounded in the Gospel of Christ. Because the majority of their audience were Gentiles, those evangelists preached "the Lord Jesus" or "Jesus is Lord", emphasizing His Lordship rather than His Mcssiahship. A local church sprang up, and for a whole year Barnabas and Saul instructed those young believers in the great truths of the gospel, Acts 11. 26.
Even before Barnabas went to Antioch at the recommendation of the church in Jerusalem, the babes in Christ there had been Growing in the Grace of God, and on his arrival this spiritual progress was the chief feature that impressed him. His visit was not an official appointment by the church in Jerusalem but a gesture of fellowship and an expression of affectionate interest in the new assembly. The grace of God, so much in evidence in the experience of the Christians in Antioch, was also exemplified in Barnabas who, instead of claiming for himself the monopoly of instructing those babes in Christ, recognized his own limitations as a "son of exhortation", and brought Saul from his native city of Tarsus to further their growth in grace by his teaching ministry. Later this grace was to be in evidence in expansion, when the assembly commended two of its ablest teachers to the grace of God for service in lands afar.
When news of approaching famine and scarcity that would occasion much hardship to the brethren in Jerusalem reached the saints in Antioch, they realized their indebtedness to the church in Jerusalem and immediately determined to do all in their power to help to alleviate the distress of the saints there by sending them pecuniary assistance. Thus the church at Antioch was Generous in its Giving to the Lord. That giving was spontaneous, for they were not asked to contribute but determined of their own volition to do so. It was also systematic, for each gave according to his ability; and it was doubtless sacrificial also, and symptomatic, for those who displayed such liberality to brethren in a distant assembly which they had never met would not later be likely to forget the Lord's servants who had laboured among them and whom they had commended for service abroad. There must have been some fairly well-to-do members in the church at Antioch since they were in a position to render considerable relief to their brethren in Jerusalem.
That first Gentile church was also Garnished with Gifts from the ascended Lord, Eph. 4. 11, and the Lord called upon the saints there to part with the most valued of their workers for the cause of the gospel. This must indeed have been a great sacrifice. Saul was to become "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ", and both Barnabas and Saul were among the prophets and teachers in the assembly, Acts 13. 1. The hortatory and comforting ministry of Barnabas, the "son of exhortation", doubtless supplied much of the pastoral care that the young Christians needed. There were also evangelists—men keen in gospel services and the commended missionaries had of necessity to evangelize before churches could be established.
Among the prophets and teachers at Antioch there was no colour bar, for Niger, generally believed to have been a dark-skinned brother, had an equal place with the other gifted ministers. No social distinction was recognized among them: Manaen, one of their number, was the foster brother of Herod the governor, and had doubtless been reared in a palace. Certainly no streak of jealousy was seen, for those who did not have the honour of carrying the gospel to distant lands but had to continue their God-given ministry at home were whole-hearted in their commendation of their two brethren, and so they dwelt together in unity until the Holy Spirit summoned His chosen messengers to service abroad.
In Acts 13. 4 the circumstances relating to the going forth of Barnabas and Saul are narrated. No pattern is provided for service in subsequent generations, but principles and precepts that suffice for the guidance of those commending and those commended are clearly discernible. In a very instructive paper entitled Missionary Methods in India Today, William Walker rightly affirms that principles are unchanging whereas methods change. The first principle that applies equally to those who commend and those who are commended is that the Lord's call comes to those already diligently occupied in His service. It was "as they (the prophets and teachers) ministered to the Lord, and fasted'*, that the selection of some of them for the fulfilment of the Lord's purpose was revealed to them. The Activity of the Servants of God is specially mentioned. The Lord's call came with such insistence that first the prophets and teachers, and then all the disciples submitted immediately and willingly to the Authority of the Spirit of God, who first produced in Barnabas and Saul the desire to serve in more distant fields and called them to set themselves apart for this. Simultaneously the same Spirit said to the prophets and teachers, "I have called these men, and you are to separate them for the special ministry I am going to entrust to them". Not only did the Spirit of God make the will of God known, but He also sent forth those whom He had chosen and, as the need arose, provided for them, filled them, endued them with power, guided and directed their movements, and sustained them amid much opposition and persecution.
The third important step in the fulfilment of the divine purpose through the church at Antioch was the Alacrity of the Saints in the assembly, who fasted, prayed, laid their hands on them and let them go. Fasting meant self-denial: prayer signified the committal of their fellow-labourers to the Lord and to the Word of His grace: and the laying on of hands indicated fellowship and identification in purpose with those who were embarking on this missionary enterprise. For both the saints in Antioch and the outgoing evangelists, it meant a sacrifice. This should always be the experience of a local assembly when the Lord claims an active member for His service abroad.
"They let them go" is the proper rendering of "they sent them away". There is no mention of any contract drawn up for their approval and signature, no promise of specified remuneration for certain work prescribed for them, and no understanding as to a furlough at the termination of a prescribed period. In the record of their itinerary there is no mention of financial matters. Years later, in his address to the Ephesian elders, Paul could say, "ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me", Acts 20. 34. The church from which they went and to which they returned exercised no control over their movements or their ministry, nor did any other local church. In the early churches there was no federation or mission board. In every respect those first commended missionaries were the Lord's freemen.